Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2013
The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1) I for one believe that! If you don’t know it about me yet, I love astronomy! And it’s more than just the science of astronomy! I love just looking up at night! Few things are more beautiful to me than a dark night sky filled with stars! It’s like thousands of jewels on a satin backdrop! I’m going to Colorado later this month, and I’m looking forward to seeing those stars from two miles higher up! If you’ve ever seen the stars from up in the mountains, you would agree that the heavens do proclaim the glory of God.
But in this case, in this story, there was more to that than just the beauty of the night sky. Here in this story, we have a group of ancient astronomers – astrologers really, Gentiles from a distant land. And they were coming to worship the child Jesus. And how did they get there? They told everybody that a star had guided them. Frankly, it’s hard to say which was more amazing, the star, or those strange men who followed it! But here they are, featured prominently in the Christmas story!
A lot has been said about that star over the years. Some believe it was a supernova – a star exploding. Some say it was a comet. Some have traced it back to Halley’s comet – which was a dud the last time around, if you remember. But it was very bright then. Some think it may have been a conjunction – a meeting of two objects in the sky. And because of that that it was more than just bright beacon. It was also a symbol. For they say that one of the objects was symbolic of Israel, and the other denoted royalty. And so together they meant that a new king would be coming to Israel. Those astrologers would have seen that as a big event!
Whatever it was, I think we can agree it was a sign proclaiming this birth! And whatever it was, these men thought it important enough to pack up and go on a journey to find what it was telling them. And in all that, I hope you’ll agree with me that this was literally the heavens declaring the glory of God!
The other thing I hope you’ll see in this story is the great contrast. Here, we have these unusual men, probably royalty, or at least men of great importance, and they’re visiting peasants. In further contrast, we have here a group of Gentiles worshipping the Jewish king. We have the power struggle between that child and the Roman tyrant, Herod. And we have these gifts the wise men brought – unusual gifts, which are so wonderfully explained in the hymn we just sung. I hope you thought about these words as you sang them.
“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown him again”
He was a king.
“Frankincense to offer have I, Incense owns a deity nigh”
He was God.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume, Breathes a life of gathering gloom,
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in a stone cold tomb”
There’s the contrast! Myrrh was a fragrant and expensive substance used in the burial process. It was a foreshadow of his suffering and death.
So here we have these men, bringing these valuable gifts, which represented royalty, deity, and a suffering. And we think about their story, which is good! Because we see these three kings depicted all around us throughout this season. We see them in decorations, on Christmas cards, in manger scenes, and in various other places.
Let me remind you, though, of the error that people often make about this story. The Bible does not say there were three kings. It merely says there were three gifts. In fact, if we think about the way people traveled in those days, in groups, for protection, it is likely that there were many more than three people! Probably there was a caravan! And yes, maybe there were many people but only three of them were kings. That’s possible. Or maybe there were more than three kings, but only these three different gifts. Or maybe when this song was written, the composer wanted to highlight the three in the group who were bearing gifts. We have no way of knowing.
Whatever the case, I want you to picture the great contrast we have in this story. You might even tweak your mental image a little, by adding a larger group of people with a caravan of camels crowding the streets of Bethlehem that night or that day. We don’t know that either, except that the star was visible.
So think about that scene. Then remember that we call this day Epiphany. And think about that word. Epiphany means “a sudden realization, or a sudden or unexpected unveiling of something.” It is an “Aha moment!” Its like an understanding of something that hits us like a bolt out of the blue. It’s a feeling of “Ooooh, I get it!” It’s like that moment, when after 7 years, I finally realized how to make the defroster work in my car! (I’m not kidding about that – mechanic that I am!)
This is just such a moment for the world! And the contrast of this scene shows it. “The Good News of great joy,” which we’ve been talking about for a couple of months now, indeed was “for all people.” Later on, the leaders of this new Christian movement would debate that in counsel. They would argue about Who’s in, and who’s not? But they would finally decided that, yes, this new thing was for Gentiles as well as for Jews. You can read about that in the book of Acts. In fact, that was one of the major stories in that book!
But it was hard for them to get that just as its hard for us sometimes, too. Think about it. People do tend to gravitate toward people who are like them. And they tend not to include people who are not. “Birds of a feather,” do tend to “flock together.” And I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to hang around with people who are like us. But the epiphany that we celebrate today means that that alone is only part of the story in God’s kingdom. This celebration means that we need to give thought to those who are not like us. And that may be an epiphany for us, too!
I’ve asked this question before. What if a bunch of bikers started coming to this church? How would we feel? Actually we have some now. It’s already started! Bikers are infiltrating our congregation! They’re living among us! Who knows what’s next! (Maybe even a preacher who’s a biker!) Actually, bikers can be very friendly. Did you ever see them pass each other on the road? They always wave at each other! It’s kind of a downward wave. Look for it.
Another part of the contrast here is found on the social scale. These kings were prominent, wealthy men in their society. If they weren’t actually kings, they certainly lived like kings! But, as I’ve said before, Joseph and Mary may well have come from the lowest of the social classes. The word translated “carpenter” could also refer to “one who tends and sharpens the tools of a carpenter.” And that would have put Joseph in the lowest social class! I hope you see the contrast there!
The early church had to deal with that kind of contrast. Wealthy and poor people were worshipping together in those days. And those differences were causing problems in some congregations. In some cases, when they had meals together, some people had a lot to eat while others had very little, and there was a lack of sharing between them. Paul had to address that in some of his letters. But how do we deal with those kinds of contrasts?
Of course the other part of this contrast has to do with people who don’t believe what we believe. These kings were not just of another country, they were of another religion. Some have suggested that they came from a religion called Zoroastrianism. Maybe you remember that name from your history classes. Zoroastrians were people who studied the stars and saw objects in the heavens as having the power to guide and predict life on earth. Our modern day Horoscopes are a tiny vestige of that ancient belief.
So how do we feel about people who believe differently than we do? This can be the hardest contrast, can’t it? And I’m not just talking about how we deal with people who are Buddhists, or Hindus, or Moslems, or even Jews. Sometimes the hardest thing is how we deal with Baptists and Methodists and Catholics? They can be the hardest to deal with. How do we talk to them? Do we even try?
What about the Mormons? Years ago I went to the Mormon center in Salt Lake City while I was out there skiing. (Of course!) I took the tour. And I learned that the heart of the Mormon religion is the belief that Jesus visited the native americans – the indians in this country – at around the same time he was here on earth in Israel. A number of the native american histories contain stories of a great white spirit. The Mormons point to Jesus words in John 10:16 where he says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” So how do we talk with the Mormons? Should we talk to them when they come to our doors?
All of that comes to mind for me when I read this story. We might not think that God reaches out to those with whom we’re uncomfortable. But the irrefutable fact is that he does! Jesus did when he was here. That’s what made the powers-that-be so uncomfortable. He befriended the sinners and tax collectors. He touched and healed the lepers. He gave sight to the blind beggars, and he healed the infirmities of the elderly and the marginalized. That’s the Savior we worship!!!
So what about us? Epiphany calls us to a sudden realization of the amazing love of God. And it calls us to share that love, no matter what! So, as we begin a new year, as we make our resolutions, let one of them be to love the loveless, to reach out to God’s children, no matter what they might look like – be they Methodists or Mormons, Hindus or Moslems, Jews or Zoroastrians. And yes, maybe my words sound a bit outlandish today. But are they that different from the outlandish scene that first Epiphany or the outlandish things Jesus said when he was here. May we resolve to be more like him throughout this new year.
And to God be the glory and praise, now and forever, world without end, Amen.
Eternal God, open our eyes, so that we might see the love you have for all your people. Help us to be aware of how we need to love others, based on your standards of love, rather than our own. Fill us with your Spirit, whereby we can have the power to follow Jesus Christ every day, in every way, For we pray in his name, Amen.